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The Silver Couloir on Colorado’s Buffalo Mountain can’t be considered remote or obscure. The prominent line that cuts nearly 3,000 vertical feet down the mountain’s north face hits westbound drivers’ eyes almost immediately after exiting the long and dark Eisenhower Tunnel. It’s featured in the book “The 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America,” and on any given spring weekend after the first proper melt/freeze cycle, there are likely to be 10 to 50 people ascending the mountain in hopes of bagging the line.
Even with this popularity, Silver Couloir is still very dangerous. The line has two prominent avalanche start zones that funnel into a tight, rock-walled terrain trap before spilling out into dense forest below. Seemingly ever-present winds keep the top part of the descent cold and hard for much of the spring, but the bottom of the line faces east and heats up quickly. This makes the timing for the line tricky because waiting for a corn cycle at the top could lead to wet slides at the bottom.
Additionally, because the couloir ends before reconnecting with an established trail, there is an infamous traverse below numerous avalanche paths to reconnect with the route that leads back to the parking lot.
I skied this line over a decade ago and can remember trying to figure out the traverse while constantly keeping one eye on the mountain. While looking for roller balls and other indications of wet slides above, I remember feeling like the traverse out was scarier than the descent.
Enter Gaia GPS
A few weeks ago, I joined a group of three friends to ski the couloir. Considering my previous experience, I decided to test the Gaia GPS mapping tool before, during, and after the mission in hopes of mitigating certain risks throughout the day.
The night before our early-morning start, I mapped out the planned route on Gaia GPS’s browser-based desktop programming. In addition to a standard topo map and established trails, I was able to add layers to the map showing forecasted snowfall, avalanche forecasts, projected snow depth, and a slew of other features that I normally check on other websites, all on one map.
But perhaps the most useful layer is one that shows slope angle. The colors of the map transition from yellow to red to indicate where the slope angle becomes steep enough for avalanches to occur. The deeper the red, the steeper the slope. While I wasn’t too concerned about the avalanche danger considering the melt-freeze cycle that would ultimately stay frozen all day, the slope angle layer is ideal for knowing when avalanche terrain might be above a skin track or traverse exit.
After building a route, I was able to save it to both my phone—where all of these overlays and layers are also available—and to my Garmin Fenix 6 Pro smartwatch. By following the route on my watch, I didn’t need to pull out my phone as much to make sure the group wasn’t wandering off route during the ascent and descent. Whenever I pulled my phone out to snap a photo, however, I’d still check the Gaia GPS app to make sure everything was going to plan.
The preset skin track my group followed did not follow my planned route, however, as it avoids some overhead avalanche hazards that the summer trail goes under. We opted to follow the skin track for this reason, deviating from the pre-planned route but ultimately taking a safer path.
Once we got above treeline, the skin tracks spread like a frozen spiderweb across the treeless mountain. We worked our way back towards the pre-planned route and made our way to the windy summit.
(Side note: This was the first time I’ve ever been in a group where every member had ski crampons. We passed a number of other groups struggling up the frozen snow, and all of them asked how we were able to manage so well. If you don’t have ski crampons but want to enjoy ski touring in the spring, they are an absolute must-have.)
After skiing Silver Couloir, my group made its way through the traverse out. Luckily, the cooler temps meant that wet slides were not an issue above, but, using the Gaia GPS app and the slope angle shading features, it was clear when we were underneath avalanche terrain virtually the entire time. Because of this overhanging hazard, we kept skiing quickly until we could get to a spot that was safer to transition to skins for a quick climb back to the trail.
Back at home, I matched the group’s actual route to the planned route and then saved it in hopes of eventually building a personal route atlas. I’ve also started the process of uploading a number of backcountry-ski and ski-mountaineering routes to Gaia GPS for this reason, meaning I’ll have an easy-to-use reference going forward for weekend missions that repeat what I’ve already done (and will hopefully be able to avoid mistakes I’ve made previously).
While Gaia GPS’ hiking trail and off-trail route planning are extremely helpful for backcountry skiing, having access to crowd-sourced routes might be handy. Something like Strava’s Heat Map as a layer would be a great way to see the most traveled routes on mountains to help determine where to go.
The biggest issue with Gaia GPS, however, is navigating the numerous layers. While an activities heat map might already exist, finding it via the menu can be tedious and difficult without some sort of guide. Additionally, the search feature seems to be in beta mode. A search for “skiing” while having the map centered over Aspen, Colo., provided results in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Russia, and Canada.
Overall, Gaia GPS is an incredibly powerful tool and can make route planning for half-day, full-day, and multi-day missions very easy. A few user-friendly updates could make it even better, but until then, I will still continue to use the Premium Version regularly when traveling in the backcountry all year long.
Learn more about Gaia GPS’ backcountry skiing features
Note: Gaia GPS is owned by the same parent company as SKI Magazine.